History Camp expands to the heartland

Historians in the News
tags: History Camp

The original grassroots history conference, History Camp, is making the leap from the East Coast to the heartland. On Saturday, November 14, 100 Iowans passionate about history will come together to share their stories, network, and explore history and heritage. History Camp Iowa is the first history “unconference” anywhere outside of New England.

The sessions—27 and counting—cover a wide range of topics, including Abraham Lincoln in Council Bluffs, World War II propaganda posters, large-scale digitization projects, the role of women in the Underground Railroad in Iowa, “Happy Danes on the Plains” (surely the most clever of all the session titles), and many more.  Speakers range from history buffs to college students, museum professionals, curators, and university professors. 

This wide range of topics and speakers are just two of the things that make History Camp, which uses a “barcamp” or “unconference” format, unique.

Unlike a typical conference, there is no theme, though topics must relate to history in some way. There is no committee screening submissions, and no organization that attendees are expected to join.  History Camp is open to all—anyone can speak on any topic related to history, assuming there’s an open spot on the schedule—and anyone can attend, regardless of ability to pay.  Even suggested registration fees are modest, ranging from $10 for students to $25, which includes lunch and the History Camp Iowa T-shirt.

The concept was inaugurated in March of 2014 with an all-day event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that filled up quickly, and was repeated in Boston this March.  The event in Iowa will be the first History Camp held outside of New England.

The event is being organized by a group of volunteers with a passion for history who heard about the events on the East Coast and wanted to create their own History Camp.  “I was a history major, and bringing History Camp to Iowa is my way of rediscovering my passion,”  said Danny Akright, who is heading up History Camp Iowa.  "I’m really excited about the group we’re bringing together, especially in this extraordinarily open format."

Although the “unconference” approach may sound like a free-for-all, History Camp sessions are serious, varied, and engaging. "I wasn't sure how a bunch of self-selected speakers (as opposed to speakers being chosen by a committee) would succeed. I was surprised at how well it did succeed,” was the assessment from an attendee to History Camp Boston. About two-thirds of people who responded to the follow up survey said that the event met or exceeded their expectations, with another third saying it greatly exceeded their expectations. 

Responses also shed light on the backgrounds, interests, and motivations of those who attend.  While only one in three was in a history-related profession, all shared a common motivation, captured in the comment, "I love history and love to be with people who share the same passion.”

“I’d heard about History Camp on the East Coast and was intrigued,” said Leo Landis, state curator at the Iowa State Historical Society.  “We felt like it was a great fit for us. Promoting great, engaging history is what the Department of Cultural Affairs is trying to do with our emphasis on all 99 counties and an appreciation for Iowa arts, history, and culture. Talking about History Camp Iowa with people in the Iowa Museum Association and other callings that I have across the state, there’s a real sense of excitement with this new approach to engaging people with history.” 

One interesting trend concerns participation from academia.  No professors participated in the first History Camp, and independent scholar Liz Covart, who presented then and the following year, had this to say in HNN after the event, "Academic scholars need to look upon History Camp and other public history events as opportunities to answer the calls from both their peers and journalists to interact with the public.”  

The following year there was one participant from a college, and this fall there will be four professors from three different colleges and universities, and another five presenters with Ph.D.s.

Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, professor of history at Iowa State University is one.  "I’ve been interested in bringing what I do to the public all along,” said Dr. Riney Kehrberg.  "I appear on the radio and I’ve been on on TV.  I just love the idea of getting everybody interested.”  Her session will be about childhood on farms in the midwest.  "I am really excited about the history of childhood.  It’s something that people often don’t think of as having a history.  Often, it’s a new idea to them and this makes them think completely differently about what history is."

After the event attendees will be surveyed and a comprehensive report drafted and posted.  In addition, the slides from many of the sessions will be available online at the History Camp site.  Information on the two previous History Camps, including presentations and the post-event reports, along with the list of presentations, presenters, and registration options for History Camp Iowa, is available at www.HistoryCamp.org.

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